Haynes, J., & Marshall, L. (2018). Beats and tweets: Social media in the careers of independent musicians. New Media and Society, 20(5), 1973...

Haynes, J., & Marshall, L. (2018). Beats and tweets: Social media in the
careers of independent musicians. New Media and Society, 20(5), 1973-
1993. DOI: 10.1177/1461444817711404

Peer reviewed version
License (if available):
Link to published version (if available):

Link to publication record in Explore Bristol Research

This is the author accepted manuscript (AAM). The final published version (version of record) is available online
via Sage at http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1461444817711404. Please refer to any applicable
terms of use of the publisher.

University of Bristol - Explore Bristol Research
General rights

This document is made available in accordance with publisher policies. Please cite only the published
version using the reference above. Full terms of use are available:
Beats and Tweets: Social Media in the Careers of Independent Musicians.
Jo Haynes and Lee Marshall, SPAIS, University of Bristol
While mainstream accounts of the impact of internet technologies on the music industry
have emphasised the crisis of the major-dominated mainstream recording industry, a more
optimistic discourse has also been promoted, emphasising the opportunities that the
internet creates for independent musicians. These same new technologies, it is argued,
enable artists to reach new global audiences and engage with them in ways that can facilitate
more stable, financially self-sustaining independent careers. Little research has been
conducted, however, on the effect of new internet technologies on the careers and
practices of independent musicians. This paper, part of a pilot project on the working
experiences of independent musicians, examines how musicians signed to small labels in the
South-west of England use social media in their careers and discusses their understanding of
its benefits and disadvantages. It concludes that social media use is an essential tool in the
arsenal of an independent musician, and does provide advantages for them, but significant
disadvantages have also emerged and thus the benefits for independent musicians have likely
been overstated.

Keywords: Music Industry, Popular Music, Social Media, Music 2.0, Disintermediation.
10113 words, including references
Corresponding Author: Lee Marshall, SPAIS, University of Bristol, 11 Priory Road, Bristol
BS8 1TY. L.Marshall@bristol.ac.uk

Last revised 11 April 2017
Original Submission 23 January 2017
Revised version submitted 11 April 2017
Accepted for Publication 26 April 2017

***Version accepted for publication in New Media and Society, DOI/full
publication details to follow***

Beats and Tweets: Social Media in the Careers of Independent Musicians.
The emergence of internet technologies affected the recorded music industry earlier and, to
this point at least, more dramatically than the other major content industries. Due to a
range of technological, economic and cultural factors, long- established patterns of popular
music production and consumption were destabilised by the emergence of file-sharing
mechanisms such as Napster (1999) and BitTorrent (2001), digital media players such as the
Diamond Rio (1998) and the iPod (2001), and websites and social media platforms such as
MP3.com (1997) and MySpace (2003). At the start of the century, for a few years at least,
the fortunes of the music industry moved from the business section to the front pages.
Much of the discourse centred on piracy, with the always-litigious recording industry taking
out lawsuits against companies (initially) and individuals (latterly) accused of infringing the
major labels’ copyrights. Such nefarious acts were, it was argued, causing a dramatic decline
in legitimate sales of recorded music, harming both the labels and the musicians signed to
The hegemonic media narrative about the music industry was thus primarily negative,
dominated by the mainstream recording industry’s perceptions of law-breaking, crisis and
conflict. Simultaneously, however, there existed an alternative, more optimistic discourse
regarding the opportunities afforded by these new technologies. These alternative accounts,
often involving a certain amount of shadenfreude towards the travails of the major labels,
saw the new technologies as an incredible boon to musicians, especially independent
musicians. The wave of new innovations would, it was argued, enable musicians to promote
their music, communicate with their fans directly and sell their products on the same virtual
shelves as global superstars, freeing them from dependence upon labels.
Almost twenty years on from Napster, there is still some disruption in the music industry
but things are considerably less volatile as new patterns of production and consumption
begin to stabilise. As such, this is a timely moment to investigate whether the more
optimistic visions have been realised: have the new internet technologies produced positive
outcomes for independent musicians? This is particularly so given that, despite its
prominence, there remains remarkably little empirical research conducted on the impact of
the internet on the working lives of musicians, particularly those without celebrity status or
well-established audiences.1 Contextualised within the broader changes experienced in the
music industry, this paper details how a number of independent musicians understand the
role of new technologies in their careers and in the music industry more broadly. In
particular it focuses on social media, which is a key element of the more optimistic
discourses (e.g. Kusek 2014). Social media was/is understood as a means through which
musicians can build and maintain audiences which can then be ‘monetised’ in a variety of
ways. Our results, however, indicate a more ambiguous situation: while the musicians we
interviewed recognised the necessity of social media for developing a musical career, there

 For example, see Potts (2012) on Amanda Palmer, and Click et al (2013) on Lady Gaga. Academic work on
non-famous musicians is thinner on the ground, though there is discussion of relevant work later in the article.
was uncertainty about its precise benefits and criticism towards the ways in which social
media has become institutionalised within the existing framework of the music industry.
‘Social media’ is, of course, a very broad term covering a wide range of related but far from
identical services. Generally speaking, the term refers to ‘a host of web-based applications’
collectively forming ‘an expansive ecosystem of connective media’ whose key
characteristics are social networking and the creation and exchange of content generated by
users (van Dijck and Poell 2013:5) There are literally scores of social media sites/platforms
that an individual musician could sign up to, including general social networking platforms
such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, user-generated content sites such as YouTube and
music-specific sites such as Soundcloud, Bandcamp and Songkick. Services that are not
primarily ‘social media services’, such as Spotify, may also contain a significant social media
element. Each of these platforms provides different functionality and offers different
affordances (Hutchby 2001) and each could be the focus of their own in-depth study.2
Without wanting to understate these differences, nor rejecting the potential of ethnographic
approaches in understanding them, we have taken a different approach. In this paper, we
offer a more institutional analysis, focusing on how the use and interpretation of social
media is shaped by the relations of production within pre-existing media industries. This
means that, for the purposes of this paper, we have kept the meaning of ‘social media’
necessarily open, being led both by popular discourses regarding social media in the music
industry and by the understandings of the musicians in our study (further elaboration is in
section 3). The approach that we are taking offers important insights into how the
affordances of particular new media are shaped by the social conditions of their emergence
and, while it is less common in the field of New Media Studies than studies which
concentrate on the use of specific technologies/platforms, we believe that offering a macro-
oriented analysis (that does not lose sight of the micro) is crucial for developing a more
complete understanding of new media.
The paper consists of five sections. The next section outlines the optimistic discourse about
social media and new internet technologies in more detail. After that, we outline the
research project from which this paper emerges, providing an overview of the sample and
explaining the central questions investigated. In the fourth section we discuss the views of
the musicians interviewed and critically evaluate the everyday realities of the functions of
social media for these musicians. We conclude that the benefits of social media to
independent musicians are limited and that, rather than overturning existing music industry
practices, these new technologies are being adapted into existing industry practices and
How new technologies may help independent musicians: an overview
Even before the turn of the century, advanced computer hardware such as MIDI keyboards
and software such as Pro-Tools had reduced the costs of production to the point where
creating music of a ‘professional’ standard was within the reach of many independent

 Concerning music, Twitter in particular has been the focus of detailed case studies: see for example Bennett
2016 and Spirou 2014.
musicians. For those of the view that new online technologies would bring benefit to
independent musicians, the belief was that such technologies would similarly democratise
the means of promotion and the means of distribution, two capital-intensive areas in which
the major labels had previously held an unassailable advantage. Combined with internet-led
changes in retailing (the rise of ‘long-tail’ economics), the idea was that musicians would
now be able to create and maintain an audience independently, providing them with a
sustainable income while maintaining autonomy over their career:
   Ten years ago, the only way for an independent artist to gain exposure on a large scale
   was to endlessly pursue, and hope for, that one-in-a-million major label recording
   contract. For an unestablished artist, it was pretty near impossible to find new fans for
   your music beyond what you could bring in doing live shows... Fast forward ten years
   to today [and t]he Internet has turned the recording industry upside down. Artists
   don't need a major label deal to find success. In fact, it's preferable *not* to have
   one.... the Internet has created an enormous opportunity.... Using the Internet,
   independent artists and bands can have literally *thousands* of people listening to
   their music all over the world every single day (Nevue 2003).
Broadly speaking, the central pillars of such an argument are threefold: 1) that the internet
provides a global portal on which independent musicians can publicise their music and
attract new fans; 2) that the internet provides a means through which musicians can keep
their audiences engaged; and 3) that the internet provides a means through which
independent musicians can sell their music and associated products.3 We will now elaborate
briefly on each of these points.
Firstly, in providing a variety of platforms on which musicians could post music (for example,
MySpace, YouTube, Soundcloud), the internet increases the number of ways in which a
listener can be made aware of a musician’s output. According to Collins and Young, the
internet ‘makes the invisible visible’ (2014:101). In the pre-internet era, the ways in which a
musician could get their music heard by potential fans were few – radio, television and live
performance being the most obvious, but the first two were heavily restricted while the
third was time-consuming, costly and accessed limited numbers of listeners. With the
internet, so the story goes, a musician can post songs on sites like MySpace and YouTube
and reach a much bigger audience at practically no cost. Choi offers an exemplar of this
viewpoint in describing the success of Lorde who, she argues ‘had difficulty getting radio
airtime, [so] she put five songs on SoundCloud in 2012. The songs instantly went viral,
which eventually led to the sale of millions of copies of her debut album, Pure Heroine’
(2016:5). While this account might seem simplistic, there is no doubt that sites such as
SoundCloud provide access to much bigger potential audiences than traditional channels for
the vast majority of musicians, given that they offer global reach. It is widely acknowledged
that internet technologies help facilitate the transnational circulation of music and can help
construct diasporic identities, creating a sense of belonging at home and abroad (for

  The numbering here is intended as logical (accessing, engaging and monetising audiences); it makes no
presumptions about the chronological emergence of each ‘pillar’ which, in reality, are interconnected and not
necessarily tied to specific technologies.
example, see Sardinha 2016). In terms of developing sustainable careers for aspirant
independent musicians, however, the global reach of internet audiences can be particularly
important for musicians who live away from traditional music industry centres of power
such as London and Los Angeles. For example, Baym (2011:31-2) details how Swedish
independent record labels are able to benefit from global access, selling the majority of their
records abroad and benefitting from small tribes of followers all around the world.
Those small ‘tribes’ form part of the second pillar of the discourse being outlined here: that
the internet (particularly social networking platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat
and Instagram) enables musicians to continually engage with fans, thus maintaining an
audience willing to spend money on their products. Music fans have always demonstrated
tendencies to form taste communities but the opportunities afforded by Web 2.0 and
‘participatory culture’ (Jenkins 2008) have amplified such processes. ‘Social media’, broadly
conceptualised, is central to this idea, described as ‘the cornerstone of [a] music career’ by
digital music commentator Dave Kusek (2014). While musicians’ use of such services can
follow a conventional one-to-many communication model (e.g. informing followers of an
upcoming show), it is generally seen as more important in generating two-way interaction
between artists and fans. Several authors (e.g. Bennett 2016; Potts 2012) have discussed
how interaction via social media, and Twitter in particular, can be used to develop a more
intense and rewarding relationship between a musician and their fans. In terms of developing
a sustainable career, however, the key issue is the way in which social media supposedly
enables musicians to acquire a ‘direct access relationship’ with their fans, creating
opportunities to market to them without intermediaries (Breen 2004:80). The overall idea is
that, by making oneself accessible and helping fans develop greater affinity with their work,
musicians can develop a fanbase invested enough to spend money on them (e.g. Baym 2011).
Though obviously reflecting a vested interest, Twitter’s then-Head of Strategic Sales, Ross
Hoffman, outlined the logic of this position clearly: ‘the more [musicians] can build an
audience on Twitter, the more tickets they can sell, the more music they can distribute and
the more of their core business model they will be able to support’ (in Bruno 2011).
Hoffman’s statement implies the third pillar of the notion that the internet enables
independent musicians to become successful: new digital technologies enable independent
musicians to sell goods effectively. In the past, without support from major or moderately-
sized independent record labels, musicians had minimal opportunities to access the physical
distribution systems required to be sold in national and international retail networks.
Opportunities for selling music and merchandise were generally limited to live
performances, local networks and mail-order. With the emergence of new distributors such
as CD Baby (which offers global distribution of CDs as well as digital files), TuneCore, Ditto
and The Orchard, independent musicians now have the opportunity to have their music
distributed to the same major retail outlets as artists signed to major labels. Furthermore,
the emergence of ‘direct to fan’ platforms such as Bandcamp, Topspin and Big Cartel enable
musicians to sell products directly for lower commissions than would be charged by major
retailers like iTunes and Amazon. Given the supposed emergence of ‘long tail’ economics
(Anderson 2007), in which retailers sell small amounts of a vast number of products, the
suggestion is that independent musicians will be able to carve out for themselves a small but
sustainable niche in the digital marketplace. As Collins and Young suggest, ‘the marketplace
for musicians is a far more accessible place. Success in that market still requires talent,
persistence and sheer luck, but at least any musician can now set up a stall in the bazaar’
These, then, are the key pillars of the argument that new internet technologies have been a
positive development for independent musicians. The overall conclusion is that the power of
traditional gatekeepers – most notably the major record labels – has been significantly
weakened by the disintermediating nature of these technologies, facilitating more direct
social and financial relationships between artist and fan. Such an argument perhaps peaked
following the emergence of MySpace in 2003 but retains potency today. For example:
  The internet has put some power back in their artist’s hands. Thanks to the internet,
  musicians and singers now have more control over their own fates. They are able to
  produce their own track, upload it to the internet and promote it accordingly
  (Harrison 2014).
  Over the past decade, more and more artists have been able to sell 100,000 or so
  records and fill 3,000 seat venues in 30 to 40 cities worldwide...without first being
  played on mainstream radio or having a large record label’s marketing budget (Charles
As well as in mainstream media and online blogs, the argument is reproduced in academic
accounts of the music industry. For example, Wikstrom argues that ‘in the new music
economy, the record label is no longer in the driver’s seat; it is the artist, or the
artist/manager, who is’ (2009:143) while Hracs states that ‘by eroding the power of the
major record labels, technology is democratizing the production and distribution of music’
(2012:442). Collins and Young, meanwhile, state that ‘artists unable to gain the attention of
the A&R folk in the major labels have at their disposal marketing and distribution
mechanisms that are relatively accessible and genuinely global’ (2014:101). Many success
stories are offered to illustrate the viability of the new model for independent musicians:
from The Arctic Monkeys going from file-sharing phenomenon to the fastest-selling debut
album in British history (Hasted 2005), to Sandi Thom getting signed by Sony after
webstreaming basement concerts to thousands of viewers (Sinclair 2006), to the
aforementioned Lorde posting songs on SoundCloud and becoming a multi-million selling
artist. Overall, these new technologies are claimed to be heralding a paradigm shift within
the music (and, specifically, the recording) industry.

Investigating social media use in the contemporary music industry
The previous section has outlined a number of arguments about how new internet
technologies enable independent musicians to have more direct relations with fans, greater
access to the market and more opportunity for alternative online performance events
requiring little to no negotiation with established gatekeepers. There are reasons to be

cautious about these claims, however, and others like them. Firstly, there is a tendency to
focus on individual cases and success stories rather than more general trends, especially if
the examples are relatively famous. While acknowledging that there are examples of
musicians who have used the supposed new paradigm to their benefit, and have generated a
sustainable living from their music, it is questionable how representative such success stories
are and it needs to be asked whether they reflect the experience of the majority of
musicians working today. Secondly, and relatedly, the artists who are most often held up as
exemplars of leveraging the power of social media in order to develop flourishing
independent careers are those who had established audiences before the emergence of
these new media (Marshall 2013). Perhaps the most notable is Amanda Palmer, whose
various achievements include selling $11,000 worth of T-shirts in one evening on Twitter
(Houghton 2009) and attaining pledges worth more than $500,000 within a few days of
launching a Kickstarter campaign to fund the recording of a new album (Peoples 2012).
However, artists like this are able to achieve such feats because they had existing fan bases
resulting from record label investment and promotional strategies earlier in their careers.
As suggested by the manager of OK Go!, another act often hailed as demonstrating the
power of social media for maintaining an independent career, the best way to be successful
as an independent artist is to ‘be on a major label for ten years first’ (in Lindvall 2011).
There is evidence to suggest that social media is more useful in maintaining and growing
existing audiences than in building new audiences from scratch, and very few independent
artists have become successful without label support (van Buskirk 2012).4 Finally, the stories
of those artists who did seem to come out of nowhere and develop huge followings as a
result of online activity are generally more complex, and more influenced by conventional
music industry practices and intermediaries, than is commonly assumed. For example, the
success of the Arctic Monkeys owed much to their well-established music managers and the
quaintly old-fashioned strategy of relentlessly gigging in order to build up the band’s fanbase;
Sandi Thom was likely signed to Sony before her webstreaming success (she certainly had a
significant publishing deal and employed a PR firm, and someone needed to pay the large
web-hosting bill), while Lorde had been signed to the largest record label in the world for
three years before ‘self-releasing’ her EP.
Overall, in much of the more optimistic discourse about the opportunities for independent
musicians, there is a tendency to treat the theoretical possibilities afforded by the new
technologies as lived reality. This leads to, at best, insufficiently nuanced accounts of music
industry dynamics and, at worst, technologically determinist claims. However, these new
technologies are emerging within existing social and economic frameworks which shape how
they are used and developed. The small amount of empirical work that has been completed
on the experience of musicians in the digital music industry (for example, Baym 2012;
Sargent 2009) paints a more complex picture, with the new music economy creating
disadvantages and frustrations for independent musicians, as well as opportunities. More
research is needed to investigate how new internet technologies work (or don’t) for the

    Though what counts as ‘success’ in this context is obviously open to debate.

majority of working musicians, and on how these technologies are being integrated into,
rather than simply overturning, existing music industry practices.
By drawing on original qualitative data from a recent pilot project5 this article will examine
musicians’ views on the impact of new internet technologies and social media platforms on
the development and maintenance of their musical careers. Despite being a pilot project
with a relatively small sample of data, the analytical insights obtained from examining
ordinary musicians’ perceptions of the role and significance of social media raises critical
questions about its actual contribution to their ability to earn a living from music as it
becomes more embedded within music industry structures more widely.
Research Sample and Data Collection
‘Musicians’ can be a diverse group, in terms of their creative practices, their revenue
streams and their digital presence and, one can assume, their attitudes towards new digital
technologies. All musicians have varying levels of exposure to the opportunities and risks
associated with social media and internet technologies. For this project, musicians signed to
record labels formed the basis of our sample, though by ‘label’ we mean small local entities
and not global labels like Sony or large independents like XL. This target sample was chosen
in order to access musicians who were not necessarily financially successful or secure in
their careers but who at least had some potential for financially sustaining themselves
through music. One of our principle goals was to investigate whether the dominant
narratives about social media matched the reality and we sought a target sample at the crux
of this phenomenon, with the potential for significant benefit (having some level of
established career/audience and not completely unknown) but at risk to some of the threats
(the various effects of declining record sales). We felt that musicians signed to a label and
already releasing music and performing live, but who still operated on the fringes of the
mainstream industry and were building a career largely through their own entrepreneurial
endeavours, best met that target group.
The pilot project was made manageable by restricting the geographical focus to the South
West of England.6 However, this sampling criterion reflected the location of the labels and
not the individual musicians, who were geographically dispersed. A combination of an online
scoping questionnaire with 43 musicians followed by in-depth interviews with ten
respondents formed the basis of the research. The questionnaire respondents reflected
some diversity across age (from 17-70, though 36 of the respondents were aged between 23
and 43) and genres (precise categorisations are impossible, but roughly a third of
respondents created various forms of electronic dance music and roughly a third produced
indie folk/rock; remaining respondents mainly came from a mix of folk, rock, hiphop and
jazz). There were relatively few female respondents (7/43), though this is typical of popular
music production more broadly. The ten musicians selected as the sub-sample were

  Digital entrepreneurs: negotiating commerce and creativity in the ‘new’ music industry (funded by The British
Academy small grants scheme, ref SG122392). Thanks to Ellen Kirkpatrick for research assistance on the
  The Arts Council England’s definition of the counties comprising the South West Region were used. See
http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/who-we-are/your-arts-council-area/south-west/ [last accessed 07.07.2015]
included on the basis of gender, income and genre, as well as demonstrating a range of
attitudes towards social media and online engagement. Due to circumstances beyond our
control, our interview sub-sample is skewed towards a mixture of indie, rock, alt-folk and
lo-fi genres. However, neither the questionnaire nor the interview responses demonstrated
any meaningful differentiation by genre, nor any other factor. The in-depth qualitative
interviews were semi-structured and lasted approximately 45-90 minutes and were fully
The next section draws on qualitative data from the interviews and questionnaires and
examines the ways in which musicians use social media as well as their experiences and
perceptions of it within the context of their career.7 As explained in the introduction, we
used an intentionally broad definition of ‘social media’ throughout the research process in
order to capture a sense of the various ways in which different social media platforms may
be existing as part of the social relations of popular music production. To a large extent, we
were led by the musicians’ own understandings of what ‘social media’ meant and, given that
none of our respondents asked for clarification on what should or should not be included,
we can assume at least something of an implied consensus. Facebook and Twitter were by
far the most-referenced specific services, with relatively few mentions of other social
networking services such as Instagram in the interviews. Direct-to-fan platforms such as Big
Cartel, and music-specific services such as ReverbNation were raised in discussion of
specific points but generally did not appear to be at the forefront of the musicians’ ideas of
what ‘social media’ was.
Musicians’ perspectives of the impact of social media
As part of the initial scoping questionnaire, we asked our respondents a series of questions
about the impact of social media upon their careers which included attitudinal questions
within a simple Likert scale as well as open questions that focused on their perceptions of
the advantages and disadvantages of social media. The follow-up interviews generated more
detailed information about their experiences of using social media, the role they believed it
was playing in their careers and the industry more broadly.
The contextual data obtained from the questionnaire suggested that there was some
ambiguity about the usefulness of social media, with acknowledgement that social media has
enabled them to expand their reach (in terms of both audiences and professional networks)
but more uncertainty about the bottom line impact of this expansion. This ambiguity or
ambivalence was repeated in the interviews. When the topic of social media was raised,
there was recognition of the role it had played in whatever level of success they had
   Our band basically has been able to exist at the level we’re at because of social media I
   would say. [15]

  For the purposes of distinguishing between qualitative comment obtained from the online scoping
questionnaire and from in-depth interview, data references in these sections will refer to the individual case
number (e.g. [13] [23]) with ‘q’ appended to signify questionnaire data [13q] [23q].
I wouldn’t be sat here saying I’m self-sufficient if the internet didn’t exist, if social
   media didn’t exist. It’s..., yeah, it’s essential. Utterly. [43]
In one sense this kind of response is unsurprising: social media now exist as part of modern
social life and thus asking what role they play in an individual’s career is a little like asking
what role electricity plays - it’s just something that is used. This is particularly the case given
that our sample had minimal experience of a music industry before social media. It may not
explain why a musician achieves a certain level of success but, if they have, then social media
is going to have been used as part of their career.
When asked to enunciate the biggest benefit of social media for their careers, claims about
disintermediation featured prominently. One musician responded that social media gave
them an opportunity to ‘get in contact with people without having to spend loads of money
on PR and promotion’ [22q] while another said that it gave him ‘direct engagement with
people that care about my music [and an] opportunity to cut out the ancillary services and
elements of the music industry’ [15q].
So, on the one hand, the musicians who were part of this study reiterated some of the
dominant narratives described earlier, viewing social media as a key platform upon which
they could base their careers. The most enthusiastic response stated ‘I think social media
has really changed the face of music... it's really levelled the playing field!’ [39q]. At the same
time, however, to many it is not clear exactly how social media helps and several, including
those who spoke positively, spoke of confusion and frustration:
   It’s just that it’s sometimes hard to know what impact it’s having, y’know it’s not
   always quantifiable. [42]
   It’s frustrating that you still can’t sell out a gig because you know that you can easily
   contact enough people who would want to come but, I don’t know, it’s trying to put a
   number, a tangible effect of it is really, really confusing. [44]
In the remainder of this paper, we focus on these feelings of ambivalence, outlining where
these musicians feel social media has helped them in their careers but also outlining where
social media does not solve the problems it is alleged to solve, or where it creates new
problems. In particular, we focus on two overarching areas. Firstly, we will discuss how
these musicians feel about social media in relation to audiences, highlighting the benefits it
offers in terms of audience interaction but also the frustrations generated by the difficulty in
monetising this kind of activity, its ineffectiveness for reaching new audiences and the threat
of marketplace saturation. Secondly, we focus on how social media is used within the
musicians’ industry networking practices. The musicians were generally clearer about the
benefits of social media in this regard but were also strongly resistant to the ways in which
social media are becoming institutionalised within conventional music industry structures.
Within the optimistic discourse outlined earlier, a general assumption seems to be that the
most transparent benefit of social media for independent musicians concerns direct contact
with audiences, both the ability to expand one’s audience and the ability to interact with
one’s existing audience. As Baym notes, ‘nearly all music professionals seem convinced that
social media – and in particular musicians' use of those media to connect with audiences – are
key to their survival’ (2012:287, emphasis added). This was certainly repeated by the
musicians in our study: when asked about how they used social media, engaging with
audiences was generally the first thing that they mentioned and the most common type of
activity, though they generally downplayed it, seemingly taking for granted that it was fairly
mundane rather than a ‘cornerstone of their career’:
    I sort of update people, if you like, rather than, y’know, actively plug[ging] my music. I
    just say, “I’m doing this if you’re interested”. [16]
    I’m more just keeping people aware of what’s going on, of making them aware that
    we’ve got another single, aware that there’s a new video, aware that we’re doing a gig,
    just basic stuff really. [10]
While keeping fans updated was taken for granted, several musicians stated that one of the
main benefits of social media interaction with their audience was that it provided a fairly
immediate way that they could receive positive feedback about their music:
    It’s given us a level of engagement with people that... didn’t exist before, except
    through playing a show and standing around after. [15]
    What’s really nice is when it’s somebody that I don’t know [who] likes my Facebook
    page and comments and sends me a message saying, “I really like this”... and I think “I
    don’t know who you are but that’s really nice”. [16]
It is clear that being a conduit for positive feedback is an important, if perhaps under-
acknowledged, function of social media for musicians.8 In her study of more established
musicians’ views of social media, Baym found similar responses, stating that ‘nearly all of the
musicians with whom I spoke experienced personal benefits as a result of direct access that
blend the rewards of friendship with those of performer/audience relationships’ (2012:293).
This kind of positive reinforcement can be extremely important in maintaining the musicians’
morale and validating their career choices, especially in the context of the financial struggles
inherent in being an independent musician:
    It feels really nice to know when people are nice about stuff that you’ve made, and
    that’s something you would never really see before, and actually gives you the
    motivation to... You can tell that the guys in the band, ... they’re gonna, y’know, pitch
    in for a few quid for the next rehearsal, they’re gonna go “oh, okay, I’ll take my last
    holiday [from my job] so we can go and do that tour, even though I’m gonna have a
    fight with my girlfriend about it.” [15]
Nonetheless, despite the positive role that social media can play in maintaining morale, the
musicians in our study were generally sceptical towards other perceived benefits of social
media in relation to audiences. Two specific criticisms arose. Firstly, there was a general

 It should be noted that some musicians also highlighted the need to develop a thick skin to deal with the flow
of criticism!
view that it was difficult, perhaps impossible, to transform social media interaction with fans
into financial income:
   I think nowadays, with how people consume music, money maybe isn’t the best
   indicator because you have free services that people use, like YouTube, Spotify and
   things like that where you can have a huge amount of appreciation coming your way
   but it doesn’t actually materialise into any kind of money. [7]
As Baym (2012) discusses, musicians’ social media interactions with audiences straddle
boundaries between fandom and friendship. However, while the interactions that are more
like friendship may be emotionally rewarding for musicians, friendship relations are less
easily commodifiable than more market-based fan/audience relationships. As such, it is
unclear that social media interaction can be monetised in the simplistic way depicted by
Hoffman earlier in the paper. There is no necessary correlation between social media
‘success’ and real-world financial sustainability:
   Sometimes you can have an event ... and the Facebook attendance might be through
   the roof because the whole viral thing’s took hold and loads of people have gone ‘ah,
   yeah’ and the sort of halo of liking expanded outwards but then the sort of door
   receipts can be abysmal for that event. So, it is frustrating. [8]
Given that ‘support in the virtual realm may not be as concrete as support in the physical
dimension’ (Suhr 2012:113), traditional income streams (sales of tickets, music and
merchandise) remain the building blocks of an independent musicians’ income. As such,
while local and physical audiences may be far smaller than potential online audiences, many
of our musicians viewed them as much more important for sustaining a musical career:
   The best form of promotion is touring. That is how we increase our fanbase. [44q]
   Although discovery potential exists, actual online discovery is *very* low. Online fans
   are diffuse and hard to reach physically, e.g. with gigs. Real-life fanbase[s] in geographic
   localities (Brighton, London, Southampton) have much more value to my revenue and
   are easier to sell to/reach. [8q]
These comments connect to a further criticism of social media that was very prominent in
our sample. Whereas conventional wisdom holds that social media enables musicians to
reach new audiences, the musicians in this project were dubious of this claim. The general
view was that, whereas social media can enable one to connect with existing audiences, it
does not help in developing new ones:
   I see our Facebook page, the likes creep up, it’s tiny. The amount of time we’ve spent
   trying to get more likes and we just reach the same people, you know. [23]
   I feel like the people that I reach through social media are my friends anyway, or family,
   or friends of friends which is great but it’s not my aim, my aim is to reach people that
   haven’t heard of me before, new people,.., I’ve had a lot more luck with playing lots of
   gigs, getting people to sign up to my mailing list and keeping in touch that way than I’ve
   had through social media. [7]

In his study of independent musicians in two US music scenes, Sargent found similar
experiences and perspectives. The musicians in his study also viewed ‘cultivation of support
in their local music scene as foundational’ to their careers but ‘despite the promise of ICTs
to transform musicians’ access to new audiences, musicians were consistently frustrated by
their inability to reach beyond their existing social networks’ (2009:476,474). In our study,
the difficulty in accessing new audiences was connected to the widely-held view that the
online music field was ‘over-saturated’ (a word repeated many times in the questionnaires
and the interviews). There is simply so much music available online that it is extremely
difficult to attract recognition:
    Suddenly everyone has a band, or is promoting their DJ night, or radio show or
    something or other, and it more or less seems like shouting in to a void of people
    talking about themselves, and I’m just one more of them…We’ve become pests. [21q]
    A drop of water in the ocean is difficult to spot! [2q]
It is not hard to find evidence to explain why musicians might feel this way. Streaming
services such as Spotify offer catalogues of over thirty million tracks while SoundCloud
users upload approximately twelve hours of music every minute (Walker 2015). Such an
abundance of music, however, means that the vast majority of it does not sell, or even get
heard. Arguing against long-tail economics, Elberse (2013:159-162) reports that, of the eight
million digital tracks to sell at least one copy in the USA in 2011, 94% sold fewer than 100
copies, 74% sold fewer than ten copies and 32% sold just a single copy.9
The popular music industry has always been characterised by an over-supply of aspirant
musicians. However, the increased accessibility of the means of production, distribution and
promotion enables more musicians to feel that they are ‘in the game’ than ever before,
while the discourses about becoming successful independently mean that they feel they have
a chance of finding a golden ticket. In the absence of more traditional forms of success (like
income), the drip-feeding of positive feedback through social media channels encourages
musicians to persist. The result is that the boundaries between ‘amateur’, ‘semi-professional’
and ‘professional’ musician – which have always been blurred when it comes to musical
production (Frith et al 2013: 66-68) – have become even more complex and the over-supply
of aspirant popular musicians has been dramatically intensified, making it even harder to
achieve a sustainable level of recognition or success:
    You are now competing with thousands and thousands and thousands of people,
    millions of people, where you used to be competing with the people in your town, or
    the people that sort of were willing to do the foot work to get to a certain level. [15]
Overall, although the musicians in our study routinely used social media for engaging with
their existing audience, and valued the appreciation that they received through it, they were

 These numbers are partial, as some digital distributors (e.g. TuneCore) do not report sales figures to Nielsen
SoundScan, which records sales figures in the USA (though some, such as CD Baby and Bandcamp, do). That
means that the overall amount of music released will be much higher. It is unlikely that the proportion of
releases selling more than a handful of copies would increase with the inclusion of these additional releases.
far more sceptical to any claims that it helped them to realise income or to expand the size
of their audience.
The musicians in this study were far more positive about the ways in which social media
enabled them to connect to others working in the industry, including other musicians.
Indeed, it seemed to us as if social media has virtually replaced the telephone as the primary
form of communication within the music industry. Comments such as these were typical:
  I can definitely think of all kinds of occasions where, you know, gig requests or
  collaboration requests or, you know, what have you have come about over social
  media. In fact, I can’t really remember the last time I got asked to do a gig over email
  now... it’s all, you know, promoters or kids that are putting a show on and they
  definitely prefer to contact you over Facebook or Twitter. [8]
  It’s just easy, if you’re doing a gig with someone, another band, and you’ve got to
  share a drum kit or something, they can just give you a quick message over on the
  Facebook and then you end up having a chat. [10]
More important than these routine utilisations, however, many of the musicians discussed
the ways in which social media helped them increase their social capital. Like many working
in creative industries, independent musicians survive on very little economic capital and have
to rely on favours from those in their social networks, often from other freelance creative
workers who are themselves looking for ways to circulate their work and develop their
reputation. In many ways, these practices are very similar to what has always occurred, but
social media facilitates greater circulation of this ‘economy of favours’. The quote below
illustrates a situation in which, through social media, a musician was able to leverage the
good will of his engaged audience (and/or potential self-interest from freelance creatives):
  So, we’ve done [long pause], er, only because we have no money, we’ve often been
  like “hey, are any of you illustrators, graphic artists? Would you like to help us design
  artwork, or t-shirts or stuff like that?”... After 11 years in a band you’ve probably used
  everyone – you’ve used most of the favours you’re going to get from your friends and
  family. So, through social media you can very quickly get all sorts of people back in,
  you can kind of motivate your audience if you like, to participate which is beneficial,
  y’know. You make friends with these people and they are willing to help you out more
  and they bring their friend.... [15]
As well as using social media to enable the exchange of free labour, many of the musicians
we interviewed focused upon social media’s ability to increase their social capital by gaining
access to intermediaries (including more established musicians) who would otherwise have
been difficult to contact. For example, one musician found out who had reviewed recordings
by a similar artist, and ‘got in touch with them and said “Can you review my CD?” and then
I’ve had a few radio plays’ [16]. Another mentioned the importance of being followed or
retweeted by a musician with a higher profile than them. Generally, the musicians were
quite strategic in this use of social media:

If you asked me would I rather have two thousand followers or ten influential people
   that are very likely to retweet a release announcement then, for me, that’s a no-
   brainer. [8]
   I’ve kind of given up on the fanbase thing... but I find it really important for networking.
   Like Twitter, for example, I think is amazing – if you want to contact someone or get
   someone’s attention, you can tweet them and they will probably see it no matter what
   their status is, which is amazing. [7]
Given the over-saturation discussed above, it is questionable whether those influential
people being targeted are receiving the message being sent. Nonetheless, it is important to
recognise that, where the musicians were most positive about the opportunities afforded by
social media, it tended to be connected to their opportunities to network and enhance their
social capital.
However, the musicians were critical of the ways in which social media is becoming
institutionalised within existing industry patterns. Firstly, they raised concerns about the way
that social media metrics are becoming established as mechanisms for providing legitimation
within the music industry. The number of followers a musician has, or their online chart
popularity are, perhaps unsurprisingly, being used as a proxy for market potential. This can
be at a very local level, with promoters looking at Facebook likes and YouTube hits before
deciding to book a band, or it can be at a much higher level: at the time we were conducting
the interviews there was a national newspaper story in the UK about the use of social media
metrics in Radio 1 playlisting meetings (Khomami 2014). This was mentioned to us during
several interviews. There was clearly a perception among our musicians that industry figures
make decisions based purely on numbers rather than listening to music, with one describing
it as ‘the biggest downside of the industry’ [10] and another complaining ‘the whole industry
is meant to be based on music but it’s based on hype’ [18q]. Even those who have benefitted
from their online presence were deterred by what they interpreted as mistaken priorities:
   I have been in meetings where people go “Oh, well you have this number of followers,
   so that’s good, that’s why we’re meeting with you” which is... [pause] crushing. [15]
Of course, musicians have always complained that ‘the industry’ has cloth ears, screwed-up
priorities and doesn’t actually listen to ‘the music’. This is simply the most recent
incarnation of the phenomenon. It does, however, illustrate how social media is fitting into
well-established music industry practices and beliefs rather than transforming them.
The second way in which the contemporary situation reproduces existing practices in the
music industry can be seen in the continued importance of gatekeepers. While the internet
may offer ‘free’ promotion to independent musicians, many musicians in our study thought
that recognition from traditional music industry gatekeepers remained essential if one was
going to be taken seriously
   It doesn’t look good for someone to be shouting their own corner... [radio] pluggers,
   radio producers, journalists, all those kinds of people they will see something...
   essentially like a, what used to be called an unsolicited demo or whatever – they see

something that’s come from the artist themselves asking for something, asking for
   radio play, asking for a review and it doesn’t look good, it doesn’t reflect on you well.
   I might only have 100 followers but, I’m signed to Columbia, they’ll go “well if those
   guys are willing to take a punt on you, then [I’ll give you a support slot]” because
   there’s an element of the music industry still looking out for its own, y’know, and you
   definitely don’t get the breaks if you go down the independent path. [15]
This musician’s belief that ‘if you reject the music industry then they’ll be quite happy to just
ignore you’ is demonstrated by a study of Dutch A&R representatives (Zwaan and Bogt
2009) which found that despite (or perhaps because of) the amount of routes to new music,
the reps still relied on their professional networks when making judgements about who to
sign. ‘Essentially, other music industry professionals within the A&R manager's network
legitimize the quality of both artist and music.... Musicians with connections to this network
have a better chance of becoming successful professionals’ (Ibid:98). Sargent reaches similar
conclusions: ‘without connections to record labels and other more formal music industry
institutions, local-level musicians encounter significant limits’ (2009:484).
The emergence of social media has thus not generated the levels of disintermediation in the
music industry as sometimes assumed. More than this, however, powerful new mediators
have emerged. Because of over-saturation and the overwhelming amount of information
available to audiences, internet media is becoming increasingly consolidated and a handful of
the most successful sites are establishing themselves as new gatekeepers and tastemakers
within the digital music field. These new gatekeepers complement rather than replace
existing gatekeepers and, in many cases, intertwine with them. For example, while the
emergence of MySpace was extremely significant for accelerating the notion that musicians
could build their careers independently, it also worked closely with well-established media
entities such as MTV (Suhr 2009:192). The end result is that the online music field adopts
many of the conventions as the pre-internet music industry:
   The digital field is also increasingly turning into a pre-configured field, where it has
   become easy for the music industry associates to discern, categorize, and prioritize
   the artists of various standings. It has become difficult to build one’s professional music
   career without being part of the digital field of cultural production, and having such an
   affiliation essentially implies that one cannot truly escape from the mainstream
   industry’s presence in the digital field (Suhr 2012:115).
It can thus be argued that, in an over-saturated environment, access to music industry
expert networks and influential gatekeepers has become more important rather than less.
This is a vital point as it brings into sharp relief the economic factors at stake. For the
musicians we interviewed, one of the most pointed issues was that the new gatekeepers
were leveraging their power and charging for things that were once free. So, for example,
Facebook charges musicians for a post to be sent to more than a certain number of
followers, meaning that it is ‘very difficult to reach as many people as before without paying

for advertising/promotion’ [22q]. On a practical level, this limits the effectiveness of specific
forms of social media:
     Facebook is horrible for promoting things because they’ve limited the amount of
     people you can reach now anyway. So, if I post something, I’ve got like eight thousand
     something followers, but I can reach about eight hundred of them through posts... so
     for me it’s really ineffective to communicate because no-one actually really sees it. [7]
More importantly, it also means that the most influential forms of social media now require
musicians to have a level of economic capital in order to use them effectively which,
generally speaking, they don’t have:
     There’s another website that I use called Reverbnation and..., but again that’s all quite
     money-based which is quite a shame. They’re constantly offering you updates, they’re
     constantly saying “You’re top!” or “Come and do this, come and do this” which is
     very tempting, but it would cost money. [16]
As one questionnaire respondent wrote, ‘social media offers a chance to promote yourself,
in theory, for free’ [18q, emphasis added]. A fundamental assumption of the popular narrative
concerning the democratising effects of social media is that such resources are freely
available to all musicians. The internet, and social media, have become so naturalised that
they are assumed to be ‘just there’, much like our voices are ‘just there’, able to be used
freely at any time. However, the internet is not a neutral space, it is driven by commercial
concerns and, without financial support to pay for ‘boosted posts’ and ‘promoted tweets’,
the opportunities for independent musicians remain limited.10 Several musicians argued that
being successful on social media (and in the new music industry more broadly) still
depended on ‘the old model’ of significant financial support, most likely from a record label:
     ...Unless you’re using the old model, the old industry model, which is paying money to
     promote your band, paying to get on radio, paying for advertising - that’s how The
     Killer’s get fifty million likes on Facebook, because they’re a big group because they’ve
     got money behind them. [23]
Contrary to the popular narrative, social media services are not decommoditised spaces
challenging existing commercial music structures. Rather, they are commercial spaces in
their own right, which intertwine with pre-existing commercial structures.

    Some of the musicians were reacting against the monetisation of social media and reverting to what we
might call ‘old school new media’, doing much of their promotion via email lists, which they felt were more
personalised and had more opportunity to lead to direct sales. This reinforces Marwick and boyd’s analysis
that, while it is ‘virtually impossible for Twitter users to account for their potential audience’, email is a
‘directed technology’ where messages are ‘pushed’ to an articulated audience that can receive content directly
targeted to them (2010: 117-20). However, alongside the medium’s technological affordances, there was also
an ideological dimension to the musicians’ strategies, with the switch to email seen in some ways as a rejection
of the industrialised system of social media. As one said ‘it’s sort of nicer to take, wrestle back control of that.
I like how personal a mailing list is... if you can have a mailing list that’s not kind of corporate thing’ [15].
You can also read
NEXT SLIDES ... Cancel